The onset of North Carolina's famously vibrant fall colors has been delayed by an unseasonably hot start to fall and drought conditions.
But Howard Neufeld, a biologist at Appalachian State University known as the "Fall Color Guy," says there's still a good chance for rich color this year – especially since cooler weather has begun.
"Normally this weekend would be peak fall color around Grandfather Mountain and Boone and Blowing Rock, but we're not there yet," Neufeld said Thursday. "I think they're going to peak sometime mid- or late next week. The weekend of the 19th ought to be really good for colors up here as long as it doesn't go back and we have another heat wave."
Traditionally, the second weekend in October is when people expect to see the best color in the mountains, but the change has started later the last few years.
"It used to be the peak up here would be the 12th through the 14th (of October), and now it looks like it moves about a week later with these rising temperatures," Neufeld said.
September was about 10 degrees hotter than the historical average for the month.
Neufeld says cool temperatures and sunny skies are key ingredients to colorful foliage, especially when it comes to bright red leaves. The amount – and variety – of trees in the western part of the state make an ideal canvas.
"In the Grandfather area down to the Smokies, this is the highest diversity of tree species in the country," Neufeld said. "We have over 150 different species of trees, so you get a lot of different trees contributing color."
Leaf season is important for North Carolina's tourism industry, especially in towns near the Blue Ridge Parkway – a popular drive with scenic mountain overlooks that runs through western North Carolina and Virginia.
"Visitors to the parkway are well trained, I would say," said Caitlin Worth, an Asheville-based spokesperson for the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is operated by the National Park Service. "They're used to expecting fall color in October."
It's the busiest month for the parkway. Last year, about 1.9 million people visited the parkway in October.
Tourism spending is one thing, but Neufeld says leaf season is important in another way, too.
"It gets more people out to see nature than almost any other season, and I think the more people see nature, the more they appreciate its beauty and maybe the more likely they will be to protect and preserve it, so I think besides just looking at pretty colors, I think it has an important ecological impact," Neufeld said.
In the Charlotte area, Neufeld says the most vibrant colors should arrive in early to mid-November.
Where To See Fall Colors
Once fall colors start to pop, here are a few places to keep in mind.
As far as timing, Neufeld posts predictions and photos online, and he also suggests checking Our State magazine's website, where he and two other leaf experts provide weekly updates. And he also suggests going early or during the week to avoid crowds.
Worth's top picks: She recommends the Linn Cove Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway, about an hour and a half drive northeast of Asheville. She also suggests the drive near Blowing Rock.
"I love to see the leaves reflected in Price Lake," Worth said.
Neufeld's top picks: He recommends Waterrock Knob, a bit east of the Great Smoky Mountains near Maggie Valley. He's also keen on Elk Knob State Park north of Boone. It's less traveled than some other areas, and a roughly two-mile hike leads to sweeping views of the forests below.
"Those forests tend to be very brightly colored," Neufeld said. "They have the right mixture of birch and beech and maple and oak and hickory."
Writer's pick: Devil's Courthouse, about an hour southwest of Asheville. It's a slight (but steep) hike up from the parkway with great views. Start by taking U.S. 276 from Brevard up to the parkway – there will be fall colors hugging the road the whole way up.
Both Worth and Neufeld agree on another tip: Leaf-watchers should head toward the Virginia section of the Blue Ridge Parkway if they want some breathing room.
"Virginia gets about half the visitation North Carolina does," Worth said. "… That stretch has some iconic parkway locations. It's a beautiful drive, especially if someone was considering an overnight trip."